Lisa Janti, an American Actress, Author and Promoter of Unity and Peace.
March 21, 2010 - Interview with Lisa Janti
Annick Elzière: What a great joy and honor for me to do this interview with you, Lisa. The two of us have been working together on different projects since 2000 and during all these years, I was very lucky to hear your story. Before we start, I must say that I enjoyed Mike Barnum’s interview published in the February 2010 issue of Classic Images Magazine. MB's interview is very long so, I will keep mine short. I don't see any need to redo his beautiful work. Would you mind if I publish his interview, as well?
Lisa Janti (LJ): Not at all. Glad you liked it.
Annick Elzière: Today, people know you as “Lisa Janti” but your actress stage name in the 50’s was “Lisa Montell” which explains the initials of LJ and LM. Let’s go back into time, now. Do you have some great memories of all the time you spent in Hollywood? Did you enjoy working with so many different people?
Lisa Janti: Yes. It was a very enjoyable time in my life. I got to see places I might never otherwise have visited, met a lot of interesting people, worked in a field that was a lot of fun, and got paid very well for doing it. I remember it all very fondly.
Annick Elzière: It sounds like Hollywood was a fun place. How different is the movie industry today from what it was in the 50's?
Lisa Janti: Well, for one thing, it is so much more high tech. Some of it takes your breath away. Films such as Out of Africa and now AVATAR, are sheer enchantments. Also, the money being spent seems
astronomical. But I guess you could say that for a lot of things these days. Really, there are good films and bad films. It was so in the 50s and it is so now.
Annick Elzière: I loved the movie AVATAR. In those days, we called actresses “starlets” and actors “stars” so, as a “starlet” in Hollywood do you regret leaving the film-making industry at the height of your career in order to focus on your personal needs?
Lisa Janti: I have to admit that at times I miss film-making. It’s a fascinating art form with endless possibilities. And for me, it was not only a very pleasurable life but also a much easier way of earning
a living than what followed. But that’s not the only thing that’s important. So many things in life interest me and frankly, I wanted to “live” my life fully, in a variety of ways, not just acting out how other people lived theirs. It’s a different reality.
Annick Elzière: Traveling around the world is a great experience for all ages but as a young woman weren't you worried about moving to South America? In those days, we did not have the Internet.
Lisa Janti: Oh no. I always loved to travel and live in different parts of the world. I was fascinated by all the different cultures and wanted to experience as many of them first hand as possible. That’s one reason I was initially drawn to acting, so I could experience being various characters and nationalities, living lives entirely different from my own. Peru was a truly marvelous and pivotal experience for me in many ways. I look forward to visiting it again some day.
Annick Elzière: I have never been to Peru but it sounds like a beautiful country to visit. I hope you may be able to go back again. You mentioned that when your father passed away your family moved to California, how excited were you at the time? Were you looking forward to your return to the United States or not at all?
Lisa Janti: I think I was ready for the move back to the States. And, I had never been to California, so that seemed another adventure beckoning to me.
Annick Elzière: What if you had never made it to Hollywood, do you have any idea of what your life would look like now? Were you ever inspired to become a school teacher, a painter or maybe a doctor?
Lisa Janti: I really have no idea. I might have gotten married and settled in Peru. But the arts would always have been an important part of my life. I’m sure I would have remained involved in a variety of
ways, whether professionally or for personal satisfaction. I might have gone back to studying painting more seriously, or begun writing sooner, or returned to New York to pursue an acting career there. Who
knows? A lot depends on whether I would have discovered the Baha’i Faith while still in Peru. That would always have been a powerful influence in the choices I made.
Annick Elzière: I believe that everything happens in our lives the way it’s meant to happen. This is exactly why no one should ever live with regrets, in my opinion. Let’s talk about the films that you were in. When you watch the movies like “The Lone Ranger” and “The Lost City of Gold” and the Disney movie, “Nine Lives of Elfego Baca,” or the many T.V. shows you were in like “Sugarfoot,” “Cheyenne,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” and many more, how do you feel about them?
I tried to count all the movies you were in and came up with over fifty of them, which is a lot. You also performed with well known actors such as Dean Martin, Robert Ryan, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Loggia, among others. How do you feel when you go back into time? Is it strange for you to watch them now, and do you remember the moments when you performed in those films?
Annick Elzière: Well, with interest in a lot of the shows I acted in surfacing again with the “Western Channel” resurrecting old films and T.V. shows, I started getting quite a lot of fan mail and invitations to various film festivals and requests for interviews, etc. It was strange at first because my work in films seemed like another life that I had long left behind and never really thought or talked much about. But as friends and family, and people in general, expressed interest in my film career and wanted to see my old photos (some of which I finally put on my personal website so people could see and access them), I began to enjoy remembering and revisiting those days, especially after moving back to Arizona, where I had filmed so many Westerns. I love the way both my daughter and granddaughter seem to get such a kick out of it.
Annick Elzière: I always enjoyed action movies. It is pretty cool that your daughters are supporting you and your career as a former actress. They must very proud of all you have accomplished. As a young actress, did you ever think that one day you would be a top star like Sophia Loren or Ava Gardner, for example? How did you feel about them?
Lisa Janti: Well, I’m sure most people dream of being successful in what they do. And yes, I would very much have liked to perform in more serious roles in well produced and well directed major films, but that would probably have kept me in Hollywood much longer and resulted in an entirely different life. As it turned out, my life was much more difficult and challenging than the one I left in Hollywood, but a very interesting and fulfilling one that I am glad and grateful to have experienced.
Annick Elzière: After a ten year career in the film-making business you made a clear decision to leave Hollywood in order to serve the Baha'i Faith. Have you always been attracted to religions?
Lisa Janti: I was always interested in spiritual things, though turned off by what I witnessed of traditional organized religion, and was actively seeking something I could really believe in; something
meaningful and profound that made sense and stirred my soul.
Annick Elzière: Indeed, everyone must find their purpose, discover their values, and live a meaningful life. Should we all have the same purpose of life meaning being of service to one another?
Lisa Janti: Oh, no question, I believe we each have a special purpose and destiny, and our main goal in life is to find that purpose and fulfill it, or our lives remain empty and futile; rather pointless and
sad, regardless of what else we accomplish or how much we succeed materially.
Annick Elzière: Looking back, do you think your life was complete and a happy one? Any regrets?
Lisa Janti: Yes, I consider myself very happy and feel blessed in many ways, not the least of which are the two special lights of my life, my daughter Shireen and a granddaughter Tatiana. I have always enjoyed and valued what I did in my life, which I equate as true wealth, and am engaged now in the most interesting and challenging endeavor of all, that of being a writer.
Annick Elzière: Your 76th birthday was around the corner. I organized a surprise birthday party around the pool, do you remember? It was a lot of fun. Do you enjoy partying, once in a while or do you always focus on your work? I see you working on your book non-stop, will you ever consider retiring, one day or it’s never going to be part of your life?
Lisa Janti: I think it is more appropriate to think in terms of taking on new interests and challenges rather than “retiring.” Life should be lived as fully as possible to the very last moment. It all has meaning and purpose, though the activity and expression of it may change. I can't imagine not being involved in some productive activity or project regardless of age or circumstances. Of course serious illnesses can be quite debilitating and a severe test for us, but the usual aches and pains should not slow us down too much. There are so many natural and beneficial things we can do to stay more healthy and functional.
Being engaged in activities that interest and motivate us is very important. I love writing and find the whole process fascinating and very stimulating. Right now I am getting ready to publish the second edition of my book “Baha’i: The New Vision” and record a CD based on it. Also, in the beginning stages, is a new book that will be written from a more personal perspective. So, no! No thoughts of retiring.
Annick Elzière: Good for you. Staying active is very healthy. There is always something to do to make a difference in the life of others. I enjoyed this interview with you and I am sure everyone will, as well. Thank you so much for your time, Lisa. Thank you for being you. Now, I will share Mike Barnum's interview with everyone.
Lisa Janti: My pleasure, Annick.
Mike Barnum's Interview in the February 2010 issue of Classic Images Magazine
A Great Way to Make a Living!
MB: Your early work was done under the name Irene Montwill?
LM: My birth name was Irena Ludmilla Vladimirovna Augustinovich. As you can imagine something needed to be done about that. My father’s paternal grandmother’s name was Montville, and after adjusting it a bit, Montwill was the name my father adopted legally when we came here. And of course Irena became Irene, and so I was Irene Montwill. That was the name that I grew up with until I took the stage name Lisa Montell.
MB: You were born in Poland, but you grew up in New York City. What was life for you as a child?
LM: I was very young when we came to the US, and I was just three months before Hitler invaded Poland. We brought with us my governess and our cook, who was considered one of the best cooks in Poland even though my father warned them about Hitler and urged them to leave. They later did so, as refugees. My father sponsored many of his friends to come to this country after the war started. We had a lovely huge apartment on Fifth Ave. right across from Central Park and many of them stayed with until they could get settled.
I spent a great deal of time in that park. One of the first English phrases I learned to say was “I don’t speak English,” with a heavy accent (Laughs). You see I would keep getting lost in the park, becoming separated from my governess. I would be running up to different people in the park saying my one English phrase that I knew, “I don’t speak English,” hoping somebody would rescue me. Later we moved to Forest Hills on Long Island, and I went to school there and also studied dance and art.
MB: I understand that your father was instrumental in your developing a love of the arts?
LM My father played the piano beautifully, not professionally, but for his own enjoyment and so I grew up on classical music. We often went to the Metropolitan Opera, as we had subscription tickets, and to
Carnegie Hall as well. From a very early age I learned to love music and theater. My father also took me to all the great museums in New York, so my life was full of the arts from the very beginning, and I loved them all! Frankly, if I thought I’d had the voice for it, my first choice would have been to be an opera singer. I love opera.
MB: Did you ever attempt it?
LM: I took lessons, but my assessment was that I would never have a great voice. It could have been a good voice, but not a great voice. And with opera, I would rather listen to great singing than be a
mediocre singer myself. When it was time to go to high school, instead of going to Forest Hills High (which was a lovely high school, and one I am sure anyone would have enjoyed going to), I put together a portfolio of artwork and auditioned for the High School of Music and Art which was in Manhattan. It was very far away from where we lived and it took me over an hour by subway to get there. It looked like a castle up on this huge hill, and there you were either a music major or an arts major. Literally thousands of kids from all over the city auditioned but they could only accept a certain amount, like 100 or maybe 150 freshmen each year, and I made it! Now mind you, we are talking about the 1940s, before the civil rights movement and all of that, and yet in this particular high school we had students from all over New York City. How fortunate I was to be with kids from every background, every race, every color, every nationality, at that time in my life. I’m sure it influenced a lot of what happened to me afterwards.
MB: What was your portfolio made up of?
LM: I painted some things and threw in some drawings--used all sorts of mediums. Although I had taken a few art classes, I really just faked it (laughs)! From visiting the museums I had become familiar
with both modern art and the classics, and I had a certain amount of skill, so I just kept painting in various styles until I thought I had enough to put an impressive portfolio together. And I got in.
MB: What was the school day like?
LS: Half the day would be spent with the usual academic subjects. The school had a very high level of academic excellence, and the other half would be spent in the art and music field. At that time they also had gym classes, but not the other kinds of extra-curricular classes like Home Ed, etc. The kids were fantastic because everyone had this passion for the arts. There was a certain spirit and excitement that most regular schools might not have had. It was wonderful, and I loved it. The only thing that was a downer for me was that I soon realized, in addition to not being great opera material, that I would also never be a top notch artist (laughs).
I remember being in a watercolor class and next to me was this young guy who created absolutely the most incredible paintings. With just a few brush strokes he would come up with gorgeous masterpieces and I was never able to get mine to look anything like what I wanted. I did have a certain amount of talent and I certainly could have learned a lot, but maybe I was too quick or impatient. I knew that I would never paint like he did, so my ardor for painting was a little dampened. After I was there for about a year and a half I learned that a new high school was opening up, the High School for the Performing Arts. When I found out about it I decided that was where I needed to go. I had never studied acting, although I had taken some dancing lessons. At this new school you could either be a dancer, a musician or an actor. Music I had already realized was not my forte, ballet I would have loved but I just hadn’t had enough training to audition, and I am not sure I would have ever had the discipline for it, so all that was left was drama. I thought I would see if I could get accepted. (laughs) And, again, I got in. It was fantastic. I loved it.
MB: Where did your professional career start? In New York or in Hollywood?
LM: Well, we actually left New York and moved to Florida where I spent a semester at The University of Miami as a Theatre major. I acted in several plays at the university, which gave me some additional theater training. However, my father at this time was involved in a large business venture in Peru, with iron mines. He represented the American interest in an American-Peruvian conglomerate. He spent a lot of time in Peru and just decided to move the family to a home we had in Florida while he decided where we would live permanently. Finally we all moved to Lima, Peru. I joined a drama workshop which was made up of Americans who were living in Lima and who had an interest in theater. We all got together as amateurs and put on plays. We had a lot of fun, and that was my way of maintaining a link with the performing arts. Well, lo and behold, while I was in one of the shows I was approached by some people who had seen my performance, and who introduced themselves as producers from Hollywood. They were there to make a movie in Peru. They already had the leading man but they were
still looking for local actresses to play the two female roles. One role was a Peruvian Princess and the other, the lead role, an American who was living in Peru. They asked if I would be interested and I did
some screen tests. That’s how I got the lead role in this movie which ended up being called Daughter of the Sun God.
MB: This was in the early 1950s, but the film wasn’t released until 1962. What happened?
LM: (Laughs) It was such an awful movie, in every way. They never were able to do much with the film after it was completed, but eventually someone bought and released it.
MB: Can you recall much about your character in the film?
LM: I played somebody, a female explorer, named Christine. By the way, this was the only time I was ever a blonde in a film, and of course I had to dye my hair. This was a super cheaply made movie, there were no make-up people, no wardrobe people, I had to do everything myself. They wanted me to be a blonde and I knew nothing about what to do about becoming a blonde, so I just put straight peroxide on my hair.
How it all didn’t fall out I don’t know, but I ended up having the weirdest hair. It came out to be very light at the ends and sort of orange grey towards the center and then, of course, as it grew out it became darker. But most of that didn’t show up on the film even though the movie was filmed in color. It was an interesting production in that a lot of the filming was done on location, in the desert and up in the mountains. I recall that there were these rickety bridges made of slats of wood that were strung between one mountain and another with this huge empty chasm underneath, and we had to cross that. Then there was this river that looked fairly innocent, which we had to cross, but the moment I stepped into the water I realized the stream had tremendous power and undercurrents, and I nearly drowned. I was carrying a camera, a gun, a canteen, blankets, some clothes, all strung on my back, and so when I got into the water the current immediately swept me off my feet and all of these things I had on my back were pulling me by the neck and on down the stream. But they rescued me--a number of times, as it turned out.
MB: And no doubt hiring a stunt woman was not in the budget.
LM: Oh, of course! I think this chapter of my life should be called The Perils of Montell (laughs)! They had me falling off horses and trekking through the burning desert; Goodness, they had a boa constrictor coming down a tree just behind me and a puma crossing right in front of me, and these people really didn’t know what they were doing. It wasn’t like having a professional crew around you who could handle these things safely. What a glamorous start!
MB: What do you recall about the cast?
LM: The male lead was Bill Holmes. I was told that he was heir to the Fleishman Yeast fortune, and that he or his father, or someone connected with him, was footing the bill on this production because Bill wanted to be an actor. There was one other professional actor in the cast and then there were a lot of locals used for the remainder of the roles. It was a totally, totally amateur job from beginning to end. Bill Holmes was a very nice guy though I don’t think he was much of an actor and, at that time I was not much of an actress.
MB: Who, or what, was the titled Sun Goddess?
LM: In the film, I have this mask in my possession that is somehow connected to this utterly ridiculous plot of finding a lost Inca city of gold in the middle of nowhere, and we end up wandering in the desert where we do finally come upon this ancient city. It looks deserted, but it is actually full of original Incas, including an Incan princess, which I guess is who the title is referring to.
MB: Did this experience convince you to try your hand in Hollywood?
LM: Not right away. I did a few other local films in Peru, all very amateurish, and then the people who had made Daughter of the Sun God contacted me and told me that they had shown the film around and there was interest in having me come to Hollywood. But, at that time I was just having too much fun in Peru. This was kind of the jet set period in my life and I loved the country. Frankly I was just having a great life there. And of course, as a New Yorker, I had a rather low impression of Hollywood, like it was not “real theater” (laughs). My goal would more likely have been to go back to New York and do something there rather than go to Hollywood. As things would have it, my father died very unexpectedly and after giving it some thought I told my mother and younger brother about the producers who kept trying to get me to come to Hollywood and that I was interested in trying it.
My mother was wonderful and agreed that we check it out. We went to Hollywood and I was immediately able to get a top agent, although afterwards I switched to another one--that’s another story altogether. The first agency was one of the major ones in town and I probably would have done much better career wise staying with them, but frankly I didn’t like the people who worked there. They were very much into the Hollywood scene and wanted me to be partying and dating producers and such, and that was absolutely not what I was interested in.
MB: It sounds like you got your first taste of the seamy side of Hollywood early on.
LM: I was complaining to a friend at the time that I was just not happy, or comfortable with this agency, especially after one episode where they left me at a party where I felt that some unseemly things were about to happen. (I got myself out of there as soon as I could).
That was just not the way that I was going to function in Hollywood. My friend suggested that I might like the people at the Hamilburg Agency, which was the agency that handled Gene Autry. They were primarily his representatives and because of that, were very much into westerns. I really liked them. The agents were older, very polite and considerate men that I felt comfortable with and could trust. I did join up with them, and because of that, I ended up doing all those western films, which was their specialty.
MB: Yes, your credits are packed with western roles, particularly within your television work.
LM: Yes, lots of Indian and Mexican parts. When I started out with the first agency I was playing American and European parts because I could do accents well.
MB: But your look was such that you could easily play any type.
LM: Yes, and I played Burmese, Polynesian, and other Asian characters, as well as the Indian, European and Latin roles. I think that was what was unique about my experience in Hollywood, that I probably played more diverse ethnic roles then any other actress. I don’t know of anyone else, really, who played that many diverse parts.
MB: Do you recall your first audition?
LM: Only vaguely. I was sent on quite a few auditions and started doing various parts. I could do different accents, was athletic, and could play a variety of roles. In those days there were not that many ethnic actors available, at least not that I was aware of. I could do just about any kind of race or nationality with just a change of costume and a little dark make-up. This got me hired a lot.
MB: Jump into Hell (1955) was one of your first Hollywood films.
LM: Yes, that was my very first one, and I was billed as Irene Montwill in the picture. I played a French girl, but I don’t remember too much about making the film. I would love to see it again. The film was about the war in Vietnam, or French Indochina as it was referred to then, and it would certainly be interesting to see how they filmed that. Around this time Warner Brothers put me under a temporary contract, but that was a time when Hollywood was changing and they weren’t putting many actors under regular contracts anymore. Everything was going into a new phase.
MB: You worked over at RKO, as well.
LM: Yes, that was when Howard Hughes owned the studio. I did two films there, Escape to Burma (1955) and Pearl of the South Pacific (1955).
MB: Howard Hughes wanted to sign you to a contract, but you chose not to. Why?
LM: I had just done Escape to Burma and was signed up to do Pearl of the South Pacific when my agent called telling me that Howard Hughes was interested in signing me to a personal contract. He told me not to go anywhere as they were setting up a meeting and that I should stay by the phone and be ready at a moment’s notice. Well, for three days I waited by the phone and I had two contrasting thoughts. One was that I was very flattered that he would be interested in me and, of course, I realized it could be a major boost in my career, as he could do a lot for it, if he wanted to.
The second one was uncertainty--and some fear--of what it meant to be under personal contract to Howard Hughes…what would I be getting myself into? I was a fairly naive person at that time and Hughes had quite a reputation. I decided that if he was interested in me as an actress that was one thing, but if he was interested in me personally that was another matter, and I wasn’t interested in that. So, I decided to dress very demure and impress him with my intelligence. Ha! When I finally got the call to meet him, I found him to be quite a strange looking man, I have to say. I spoke about how I loved opera and poetry and Russian literature and other subjects that I thought were stimulating intellectually. I figured this would either appeal to him or I’d better get out of this situation. Of course, it took care of itself because he never called again [laughs]. I guess opera and Sufi poetry were not his thing.
MB: I imagine that with you being a young, attractive actress in Hollywood, you had to be careful of wolves.
LM: Absolutely. And of course some of the young actresses had no problem with that. They were perfectly willing to do whatever it took, but I just couldn’t. And you know, it’s interesting that even though my father had passed away, he was still such a major influence in my life. I would always think “Daddy would not approve.” So much for Howard Hughes.
MB: Do you have any recollections of Barbara Stanwyck or Robert Ryan, the stars of Escape from Burma?
LM: All I remember is that they were very nice people. Barbara Stanwyck was very pleasant to work with, very professional. Most of these films were shot very quickly. They were not high budget movies, and frankly there was not much time for socializing. You just had to get in, know what you were doing, and do it in as few takes as possible. The whole Hollywood party scene was never of interest to me nor something that I felt comfortable getting involved in, so I didn’t really socialize that much with the other performers away from the set, either.
MB: Along with the human actors, you also worked with elephant performers in Escape from Burma.
LM: Oh, they were trained magnificently. They had the elephants out on the back lot at RKO and these animals would do what you wanted them to do, and do it wonderfully.
MB: The film was directed by Allan Dwan, whose career went back to the silent days.
LM: He had been a very prominent director, but by this time he was quite elderly. He was a very nice man. I think he liked me very much, and if his professional life had not been coming to an end I believe he would have wanted to promote me.
MB: Next up was Pearl of the South Pacific.
LM: This was also directed by Allan Dwan. I remember that on this film one of the producers had a problem with my hairdo and kept changing whether I had flowers in my hair or not, and I ended up with this strange look of having my hair pulled back into a totally un-Polynesian style ponytail. But it was still a good experience working on that film. The crew on these films were generally very nice, expert in their craft, and very helpful. Since I would be working often with the same people over and over again I made some good friends. It was a wonderful atmosphere and a great way to make a living!
MB: It wasn’t very long before you hit the western trail, and one of your first films in that genre was The Wild Dakotas (1956).
LM: You know I remember so little about that film, but the one thing that was different in this one, as opposed to most of my other westerns, was that I played a regular American girl, spoke with a western accent and didn’t have to wear dark make-up.
MB: One of your most popular pictures is the science fiction film World Without End (1956).
LM: Now, that film was a lot of fun. To this day I get fan mail about this film. I guess it was among the earliest of the science fiction films. I look at it now and cringe at some of the silly scenes it had, such as that huge rubber spider [laughs]! It was pretty crude.
MB: What did you think of the film at the time? Did you take it seriously?
LM: Well, I loved science fiction. I am an avid reader, science fiction included, so that made it interesting. I remember there were these doors in the film that would slide open automatically as you walked up to them. That was before they actually created doors to slide open in real life, at least that I knew of, so that was a very neat thing, to have the doors open as you approached them. Of course it was just people pulling them from behind the scenes, but still, very high tech [laughs]. Part of the fun was that my character was related to the “mutates” (terrible creatures that resulted from a nuclear war and radiation) and I got to speak in Mutate talk, which I just made up as I went along.
MB: How was Rod Taylor to work with?
LM: Rod was Okay [laughs]. You see, I really didn’t date any of my leading men. I was engaged to a Peruvian when I started working in films, and got married--to someone else-- fairly early on, so I didn't really date in Hollywood or get involved with anyone I was working with.
MB: How about the gals in the movie, Nancy Gates and Shawn Smith.
LM: Oh, they were very nice. Again we were basically either filming or doing publicity and we didn’t really socialize much.
MB: Who played the Mutates?
LM: They were extras all dressed up as hairy, ugly beasts.
MB: What did you think once you saw the finished film?
LM: Well, I think I got a kick out of it. There wasn’t anything like 2001: A Space Odyssey yet to compare it to. Ours was just a simple, silly little picture, but for what it was, it was fun, and I am glad I got to be involved with it.
MB: You mentioned that at one point in your life you had thought about studying ballet, and in the movie Gaby (1956), with Leslie Caron, you actually get to play a ballet dancer.
LM: Yes I did play a ballet dancer in this one, and with this particular film I did socialize more. I got to know Ruta Lee quite well and we did things together, actually double dated briefly. She was very nice, as I recall. And of course the movie was a lot of fun to make. Gaby was filmed at MGM, and at that time the music director was Charles Wolcott. When I shot Gaby there were a lot of singing scenes and he worked with us on those. The songs were sung in French, mainly. I remember him being a lovely man and people would say how highly respected he was and what a wonderful person he was.
It was right after this movie that I became a Baha'i, and the interesting thing is that when I went to the Baha'i center in Los Angeles to meet with the administrative body to officially become a Baha'i, I ran into Charles Wolcott in the lobby. I remember saying to him, “What are you doing here?” And he asked me the same thing. I told him I was there to become a Baha'i, and he said “And I am here to welcome you in.” He was part of the local governing body of the Baha'is in Los Angeles. Later on he was elected to the National Assembly and finally to the Universal House of Justice, which is the international governing body of the Baha'i Faith. After I became a Baha'i I worked with him once more, on Ten Thousand Bedrooms, where again we had some musical numbers.
MB: Narda Onyx was another of the gals in Gaby--do you recall her?
LM: Oh, yes, Narda was another one that I got to know on that film. She was from Estonia, I believe. I knew her for a little while and then didn’t hear from her again, whereas Ruta went on with her acting and continued to do many things in Hollywood. I also remember the director [Curtis Bernhardt], who was a lovely man, and he took Ruta, Narda and I out to dinner after filming, which was very nice of him. I had a very small part in Gaby, and had hardly any lines, but for some reason on this film--and this occurs with actors occasionally--something happened and I got stuck into repeating a mistake over and over and over again. I just could not say this one line that I was given, kept muffing it. They shot take after take after take, and I thought for sure they were going to fire me. Here I am in this minor role with just a few words to say and I can’t say them. We took 17 takes, and then finally I got it right! And how that director still ended up liking me and being sweet to me I will never know! It must have taken two hours to do that one stupid, teeny little shot of me saying that one line. I mean, if I had been the director I’d have just said “Forget the line. We’ll cut it.”
MB: Your next films were for director Roger Corman, Naked Paradise (1957) and She Gods of Shark Reef (1958), both filmed on location in Hawaii.
LM: Oh, That whole thing, She Gods of Shark Reef, was hilarious from beginning to end.
MB: And somewhat dangerous, it would seem as if you worked with live sharks in that film, didn’t you?
LM: I did. We shot those underwater scenes off Catalina Island near L.A. What they did was go out early in the morning, catch some sharks, then do terrible things to the poor animals like hit them over the head or drug them up. I don’t know what they did with them for sure, but they kept these creatures just alive enough so that they would not fall over in the water, but they were obviously not functional. When I would come into the shot, underwater, with this knife in my teeth, they would push this shark towards me into the shot and then I would grab hold of it as if I were fighting with it and stabbing it.
MB: And it was already half dead.
LM: Yes, the poor thing. In order to make it look like I killed the shark they would fill up condoms with this red liquid of some sort. I would be holding one of the condoms as I stabbed at the shark and then I was supposed to open it up and let the red stuff come out to look like shark blood. Often the red wouldn’t come out, just this tiny trickle, and I remember we had to do it over and over with the director yelling “Pump it, Lisa, pump it!” [Laughs]. There were condoms all over the place. We ran out of them and they kept sending this little boy to the drug store to get more condoms [laughs]. This was the most ridiculous and embarrassing thing that I could imagine, having to struggle with the poor half-dead shark and pump those condoms.
MB: The sharks weren’t the only ones to have problems in the water, I understand.
LS: There were two or three of the producers who, for a lark, were going to be in the opening shot of the movie where I am swimming in to rescue these guys stuck in the kelp. So these producers went into the water to be filmed and one of them promptly had a heart attack!
MB: Although She Gods of Shark Reef was filmed in color, it was still a low budget production.
LS: It was certainly not a big budget film, and in those days Corman’s movies were as cheap as they came. As with my experience in Peru, there were no wardrobe people, and for my costume they just gave me a piece of cloth and said “Here, this is your sarong.” I said “What do I do with this?” I ended up finding a bra, the kind that goes from the waist up, and I pinned the sarong to it to anchor it on me. But the funny thing was that when I was swimming underwater doing the breaststroke, the top of me moved forward while the bra stayed firmly at my waist. I would be totally coming out of that sarong! It was quite disconcerting, to say the least. They also gave me two wigs, one for dry land and one for the underwater scenes. And the one for the underwater scenes ended up smelling very fishy and bad after a while.
MB: Did working underwater prove to be difficult for you, or were you a good swimmer?
LM: I had always been a good swimmer, and I rode horses well, also. In Peru one of the things I loved doing was horseback riding and I also learned to jump, so those skills led to a lot of the roles that I got. The swimming came in particularly handy on She Gods of Shark Reef. There are some scenes where they are going to throw me overboard and sacrifice me to the shark gods. Other times the script had different girls diving into the water from boats. Well it turned out that they decided I was a better diver then the other girls so in addition to playing the lead role, they would dress me up as the other girls and I’d be diving off of different canoes, doing stunts for the extras.
MB: Well, I hope Roger Corman paid you additional for that.
LM: I don’t think that happened [laughs]. Of course we were in Hawaii and there was no Screen Actors Guild branch out there to call up and say “You know, I don’t think I am being treated right!” [Laughs]. Hawaii was wonderful, however, and I stayed on a bit after the filming was over. I used to go off on long, long walks up and down those wonderful beaches and collected the most magnificent driftwood. I Just loved it there.
MB: What was Roger Corman like as a director?
LM: I don’t remember, to tell you the truth. All I know is that I did a lot of dangerous things in his films. There is a scene, which I think shows up in the film, where I am diving off of a coral reef and that was really very dangerous. I had to do that several times and those huge waves were coming up very strong so when I was diving into them they could easily have thrown me back against the rocks. Also, if this had been a regular, well staffed movie, they would have probably taped something to the bottom of my feet for the scenes where I was running around all over those reefs bare foot. But as it was, they didn’t, and I developed some type of fungus on the soles of my feet from all that time on the coral. It took me years to get rid of it.
MB: Any recollections of the She Gods of Shark Reef leading men, Bill Cord and Don Durant?
LM: I do remember them, and they seemed like nice enough guys, but I really didn’t interact a whole lot with them. However, I do recall a funny incident with Bill Cord, I don’t know if you remember this one scene, but it is after he rescues me from the ocean and the fierce She Gods. He brings me out and while he is carrying me, Jeanne Gerson and some of the others begin chasing him. At one point he swings me as if I am some kind of weapon, using me to batter them with [laughs].
MB: The other film that you made with Corman was Naked Paradis, also known as Thunder over Hawaii.
LM: Beverly Garland was in that one, and Richard Denning. The thing about this film that I liked was that the Hawaiian actor they used in the film was a local named Johnny Kieoni, and he and I became good friends. He took me out on a date once. I remember he serenaded me on his ukelele which was very romantic, except for one thing, there were these little flies all over. There we were, on this gorgeous beach, watching this beautiful ocean and he is serenading me with these wonderful Hawaiian songs and we are being bitten to death by these tiny, horrible little flying bugs. I just wanted to get out of there [laughs]. Reality has a way of intruding on romance, I guess!
MB: And you dealt with even more sharks in this film
LS: Yes, indeed, but not directly. We were out in the ocean on a yacht and they would be filming us in these shark infested waters. They had me in the water clinging to a rope dangling off the boat for hours at a time while they set up and took different shots. It was hardly a very glamorous time. [laughs]
MB: But you got a paycheck and a free trip to Hawaii. Not a bad way to make a living.
LM: That really was wonderful. Plus I got to know the Baha'is there on the island, and some time after that they invited me back for a long stay to do a teaching trip throughout all the islands, which was just wonderful.
MB: Were many celebrities involved with the Baha'is at that time?
LM: Well, early on there had been Carole Lombard, a lovely actress married to Clark Gable. Later, Bob Dix, the son of Richard Dix, became a Baha'i. Later, Seals and Croft became quite well known as Bahais, and Dizzy Gillespie and Vic Damone, and now Rainn Wilson, among others. But I think I was one of the first, at that period in the early 1950s, and so I was being asked to go all over the place and
MB: What do you recall about Tomahawk Trail (1957) with Chuck Connors, John Smith, and Susan Cummings.
LM: The most memorable thing for me, is a scene at the end of the film where I am going back to talk to my father the chief. He has these two very savage looking warriors on horseback ride over and pick me up and then gallop away with me. They are actually galloping their horses on either side of me while holding me under my arms. Well, if any of those horses had become frightened or something, I could have been really, really hurt. That was very scary. But in the movie’s final cut they just show a long shot from the back. I thought, “Darn,” after all of that, and how scary it was for me, they didn’t even show that it was actually me doing the shot rather than a stunt woman.
MB: Any recollections of the cast?
LM: Chuck and John were both easy to work with, and I believe that the director of this film liked me a lot and was interested in helping to promote me professionally, though I never did get to work with him again. I had actually met him at someone’s home about a year or so before this film, and apparently he was quite taken with me as an actress, and asked for me to do that role in Tomahawk Trail. So that was nice. Susan was also very nice to work with, but I don’t recall her doing much after this film.
MB: With the amount of ethnic roles you were given, did you ever tire of playing characters who spoke in sort of a pigeon English?
LM: No, I enjoyed doing the ethnic roles very much; the costumes, the long hair, the accents, all were interesting and fun. Though getting up at 4:00 am for location calls in the desert where cold body make-up was slathered on me, I left something to be desired. But my desire to do serious theatre or serious movies never really materialized. Had I stayed in the business longer, perhaps it would have, I don’t know.
But I decided at that time that I was going to enjoy my career in films and be grateful for whatever roles came my way. At that time I was supporting my mother, and eventually I had a child to take care of. My husband, who was an actor also, didn’t get to do very much professionally, so I needed the work. I had no complaints about any scripts that I got, and since I had joined the Mitch Hamilburg agency I was never asked to do anything that I was uncomfortable with. They understood what my needs were and never put me in an embarrassing or awkward position. For me, making films was absolutely marvelous and fun work, though I did not look upon it as any kind of accomplishment
from an artistic point of view. The scripts that I had, well, I honestly don’t know what anyone else could have done with them. I did the best I could with what I was given but couldn’t take them too
MB: You mentioned that you had a role in the film Ten Thousand Bedrooms.
LM: There were four of us playing Italian sisters in the film, Eva Bartok, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Lisa Gaye, and myself. A group of American guys come over to Europe and end up falling in love with, and marrying, each of us.
MB: The cast included Dean Martin, Dewey Martin, and Dean Jones.
LM: What I remember about Dean Martin, besides being a very attractive man, is that he was the funniest man I ever worked with. I don’t know if he was drinking, or not. He was certainly doing what needed to be done in the movie and I never saw him to be drunk, but he was constantly goofing around and joking. He was just so naturally funny.
I also met Jerry Lewis later on, and he turned out to be very serious in person. Dean Martin was the really funny one. It is interesting that they were so opposite of how they come across on the screen. Not only Dean Martin, but that whole shoot was a lot of fun. The man who played my father, [Walter Slezak], would always call me “la favorita,” the favorite one. Lisa Gaye, who was Debra Paget’s sister in real life, and I would often go for the same interviews. Sometimes she got the part and sometimes I got the part. We were similar types and in this film we played sisters.
END of Mike Barnum's Interview
MB: You did the Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (198).
LM: I really enjoyed my character in that film--very spirited. This role was one of the few that I felt had some meat to it. I was pretty feisty in this movie and some of my lines would resonate now in terms of our national sensitivities to Native Americans. The other thing that was special about that film is that we filmed it in Tucson, Arizona and I really fell in love with the southwest of that shoot.
Tucson is surrounded by four mountain ranges, each one quite distinctive. I enjoyed everything about Tucson. It seemed very picturesque and artistic. Even the most poverty stricken areas looked like something that Van Gogh would have painted. It was colorful and had character, and I loved the whole Indian, Spanish, and Mexican flavor of the city. And it had this beautiful San Xavier mission where
we shot much of the movie. I would go there to visit by myself on many occasions.
MB: What did you think of Clayton Moore?
LM: Clayton Moore I really, really liked. I remembered that he was a very interesting, nice, attractive man and I just enjoyed working with him. I thought he had a lot more personality then a lot of the other actors I’d worked with [laughs]. He did a terrific impersonation of a Southern gentleman in the film and looked great in a mustache and goatee.
MB: Any memorable scenes?
LM: One in particular. There was this baby that I am holding in the movie, and there are several shots where we are being chased and hiding. At this point, I am just holding a doll in a blanket, but in the movie it looks as if this poor baby is being completely mishandled because of the terrible way it is being grabbed by one person and another and just getting tossed around. And of course the poor baby goes through all of this and never cries [laughs].
MB: You co-starred in Disney’s The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca (1959).
LM: Yes. It was intended to be a feature film and overseas it was shown in theaters, but here, they aired it as a series on television. I had the lead role as Anita, and Elfego Baca was played by Robert Loggia. He was so charming and attractive and one of the few leading men who, if he had invited me out, I think I would have considered it, if I hadn’t already been married at the time [laughs]. But I do remember that I was quite taken with him. Interestingly enough I found out that I was pregnant during the filming of this movie. I normally had a very tiny waist, but during this shoot my dresses felt tighter and tighter. I really didn’t think I had been eating all that much [laughs]. Finally it dawned on me that, uh oh, there is something else going on here [laughs]!
We filmed in Sante Fe, New Mexico and, there again, as in most of the southwest, I just loved the area. I think it is the most exquisite and unusual landscape and terrain. We filmed in a local monastery. There was an order of Jesuit priests there and one in particular was very young, attractive and interesting. He would come visit on the set and I got into some good discussions about religion with him. He seemed
very intrigued with my thoughts on Baha’i and its relationship with Christianity. Once, I stayed up all night reading through a very deep book on the Baha'i Faith called Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah,” underlining various passages carefully, and making notes of things I wanted him to pay special attention to, and I gave it to him. Now, whether he ever read it or not, I have no way of knowing. But I made a mighty effort to share my thoughts with him as intelligently and compellingly as I could.
MB: Was there much involvement directly from Walt Disney during the filming?
LM: Walt Disney came to visit the set in Santa Fe a couple of times. He was a lovely man, very nice to be around and comfortable to be with. There isn’t much else to tell about the film. It was an action movie. I had some free time in between shoots and I got a chance to explore Santa Fe and the surrounding area on my own. I met some of the Baha'is who lived there. It was an absolutely lovely part of the country.
MB: Any recollections of working on Gene Autry’s TV series.
LM: This was way in the beginning of my Hollywood career and another one of the few roles in which I was not playing an ethnic part. Someone sent me a copy of that episode and it was fun to watch it. Many of those old westerns are still quite popular. One of the reasons that I think so many people are caught up with the old westerns, despite the fact that most of them would be considered very silly and
amateurish by today’s standards, is that they have a certain aura of heroism and nobility about them that is mostly lacking these days. You know, the men were good and brave, fighting for the right things, and I think many of the people who were playing in those shows, like Gene Autry and Clayton Moore, were really very nice men. One funny thing, because I did so many of these shows, I would keep running into the same actors playing the same kind of bad guys [laughs] from show to show. They would always hire the same actors over and over again. I even wore the same outfits from show to show.
MB: Cheyenne was one of many Warner Bros. TV shows that were popular in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
LM: Yes, Clint Walker, who was the star, was another very nice guy. He and I once had a food discussion, because I was always interested in good nutrition and so was he. Clint gave me a lecture about how meat was the only thing worth eating and how healthy it kept him. Well, I couldn’t really argue because he certainly looked healthy in those days [laughs]! But I did hold my ground that eating a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables was important for a healthy body.
MB: You also worked on many of the other Warner Bros. TV shows.
LM: Yes, I did Surfside 6, Maverick, Sugarfoot, 77 Sunset Strip. In fact, I did several 77 Sunset Strip episodes. Roger Smith was a regular on that show and he was someone I found very interesting. He was, at that time, not yet married to Ann-Margaret. So, Robert Loggia and Roger Smith were the two actors who, if I weren’t already married, I would have certainly considered going out with. I thought Roger Smith to be very intelligent as well as very attractive, and I liked him a lot. In Maverick I worked with Jack Kelly, also great to work with. I enjoyed doing all of these Warner Bros. Shows.
There was one episode, I don’t recall which series, perhaps77 Sunset Strip, in which they had these really large, very decorative shots of me which were used for a particular scene shot in a photo gallery. I wound up getting these photos and so I had some really beautiful shots of myself! Now my daughter has them hanging in her living room.
MB: Over at ZIV Television you did a Bat Masterson episode.
LM: Bat Masterson was an interesting show, and here is another role that was death defying [laughs]. In this show I worked with live falcons. In order to handle them, I would wear a special, heavy glove on one hand [on which the bird perched] and then with my other hand I put a cover over its beak. The men on the set wouldn’t go near the creatures [laughs], but I was pretty fearless in those days. One of the falcons that we were working with got away and the trainer, for some reason, wasn’t around. The crew was in a panic. I just went in and grabbed the bird by the legs. Of course some of that was a bit foolhardy, because those falcons can really tear you to pieces with their claws and beaks. By the way, I got one of my best screen kisses on that show, from Gene Barry.
MB: Among your many television credits are several live television shows.
LM: Yes, and I really enjoyed doing those. I had some of my more serious roles in live television, and of course it was closer to live theater, which I loved.
MB: Did you have the opportunity to do any live theater while in Hollywood?
LM: No, not really, I always had to keep the time open to do movies. I never knew when I would be working on a film or TV show, so committing to rehearsals would have been difficult.
MB: Did you manage to collect much memorabilia from your career?
LM: I did manage to get a lot of publicity photos from my films and TV shows, but I regret not picking up any posters or lobby cards. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that somebody turned me onto ebay and said there were a whole bunch of my posters to be found there. Some time ago I happened to pass a store in Hollywood which sold movie memorabilia and I saw in the window a poster from World Without End. I went into the shop but the price on it was several hundred dollars, and I thought “Well, I guess I am not getting that one.” But I did end up getting quite a few items that were more reasonable, including a huge poster from She Gods of Shark Reef, and several from The Long Rope and other titles.
MB: As an author you use the name Lisa Janti. Had you considered using your former stage name in your book?
LM: No, not really. After I finished working in films I went on to do so many other things, and my life changed very dramatically. Most of the people who knew me after I left show business didn’t even know that I had been in movies. It was really like another lifetime. The things I became involved in after I retired from Hollywood were more academic and administrative and it didn’t really fit in at that point to bring up my acting career.
MB: Does it surprise you when people remember you from your acting career?
LM: Yes it does. I mean, really, I’d practically forgotten about it myself!
MB: What made you leave show business?
LM: Several factors came together, and maybe any one of them alone would have been sufficient, but altogether they were overwhelming. First of all I had become a Baha’i and that became truly the most important motivating force in my life. I was doing a lot of public speaking and that was also the period when the civil rights movement was beginning to emerge. One of the things that Bahaullah, the founder of the Baha'i faith, had said was never let your words exceed your deeds. Even though my being an actress helped attract a lot of publicity and served a good purpose, my talking about critical issues such as the horrors of poverty and prejudice, and the need to really transform this planet, made me decide that I wanted to be involved more directly. I didn’t want to just talk about these things, I wanted to live them, to be actively committed and involved.
So my orientation began to change. And again, if I had been a major star doing quality scripts it might have all been different, but what I was doing just wasn’t that interesting to me any longer. The other thing that happened in the industry at that time was that everything began to be very sexually orientated and explicit, both in terms of script content and what actresses were expected to do, including graphic sex scenes. I was terribly uncomfortable with all that and unwilling to go along. There were several instances where I could have had major roles but which would have required some nudity and I just couldn’t do it. Along with all of this, my agent, the one I had worked with for so many years and who I relied on so much, died. So, all of those factors coming together made me decide to make a major change.
As it happened I had been volunteering with different programs and was active in the civil rights movement. I was chairman of the Human Relations Committee in Culver City and active with the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations speaking on issues of open housing legislation and against other forms of discrimination. So when an opportunity opened to become a teacher in the Head Start program, quite a change, I decided I was ready to make the move. That led to my becoming Executive Director of a large Head Start program in Tucson and, later, a member of the Executive Staff of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, as well as involvement in a lot of other interesting projects.
MB: Do you ever miss show business?
LM: At times. It was a fun thing to do. I enjoyed it and, as I mentioned before, it was a great way to earn a living. At the same time, I don’t regret leaving it because I believe we have the life we need in order to learn the things we need to learn. I went on to get my Masters degree and start my doctoral work, and begin writing. For me, always, the most exciting thing in life is the realm of ideas.
This, I believe, is where true human reality dwells and is expressed. So, to gain knowledge and awareness and be fully involved in the exploration of this incredible existence we are all part of, both its outward physical forms, and its inner spiritual and mystical aspects, are what life is all about; and crucial in helping make this world a better place.
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